The best national parks in Croatia

These eight picturesque parks offer spellbinding scenery, challenging climbs and cycling adventures you'll never forget
National park Brijuni
National park Brijuni
By Time Out contributors
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Featuring dinosaur footprints off the Istrian coast and an idyllic Ancient Greek retreat near Dubrovnik, Croatia’s eight national parks are unique, varied and show a different aspect of this country’s quite astounding beauty.

The great eight

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National park Brijuni
National park Brijuni

Brijuni

Brijuni comprises 14 islands off the west coast of Istria, a short hop from Fažana, near Pula. Most are off limits but the main one, Veliki (‘Great’) Brijun, not only welcomes the public but has hosted royalty, film stars and world leaders. It was here that Tito, head of Yugoslavia after World War II and a leading figure of the non-aligned nations, had his island fiefdom.

Inviting fellow non-alignees from India, Africa and South America, Tito was bestowed with gifts, most notably in the form of the exotic animals that still form a safari park here. Visitors can observe zebras, llamas and elephants as they tour the island by a little tourist train that runs in season.

But wildlife isn’t the only attraction on Veliki Brijun. Lining the rocky coastline, and indicated on the map you’ll see as the boat pulls into the harbour here, are hundreds of dinosaur footprints. Any hike of the island is also rewarded with Ancient Roman remains, even part of a settlement from the Bronze Age.

A cycle route of 13km has also been set up to take in the main sights, starting out from the harbour where bikes can be rented. The first port of call is three exhibitions, one detailing Tito’s activities here – you might recognise some of the personalities in the photographs. The route then takes another surprising turn, past an 18-hole golf course, the first one set up on continental Europe and revamped in recent times.

Deer, first introduced a century ago, are another feature in the surrounding parkland as you approach Tito’s bizarre menagerie and, nearby, an ethno park populated by Istrian fauna such as sheep, goats and the recently revived boškarin ox.

The trail then cuts through forest before passing the early Christian church of St Mary, dating back to the 1200s and built by the Knights Templar during the time of the Crusades.

Once you see the pillars still standing from a Roman villa rustica, you’ve almost finished the tour. You can reward yourself with a swim at the beach in Saluga Bay.

If you feel you haven’t seen enough of the island, accommodation options lie close to the harbour, including the Hotel Karmen, the Istra-Neptun and several villas. All can be booked through the Brijuni National Park website.

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National Park Kornati
National Park Kornati

Kornati

There is nothing quite like Kornati. An archipelago of 140 islands and islets, it has no permanent settlements, only the occasional house-cum-shelter used by fishermen and a votive chapel or two.

Two-thirds of this dense cluster is a national park, created in 1980. This status has protected the rare marine life here, the coral and sponges, once trawled and hunted, now a visible attraction for those who go snorkeling.

Unless you have your own yacht, Kornati must be visited by excursion boat, usually arranged in the nearby town of Murter. Fishermen take tourists out to gaze at this bizarre, otherworldly environment, the dramatic karst limestone cliffs, washed by angry waves.

There’s a point soon into the journey when you enter a protected channel and the silence is deafening. It is then that you realise how it made sense for Neolithic man to live here, surrounded by a plentiful supply of fish. On the main island of Kornat, there are still Roman remains, although soil erosion has given way to hardy grass and sage. Lack of cultivation has allowed frogs, lizards and butterfly to thrive, but human visitors tend to admire these isolated outcrops from the safety of the boat.

Around Murter, the harbours at Jezera and Murter itself will be lined with signs advertising trips to Kornati. These usually last all day, starting out with a tour around the most impressive landscapes, stopping off for a bit of a dip and a snorkel in a quiet cove, with a fish barbecue and house wine thrown in as part of the tour. The price includes the day fee of 40kn. Vessels are modest, invariably converted fishing boats. At season’s end, the tourist guides return to their true profession.

There are next to no accommodation possibilities around Kornati, unless you have your own boat. Those who do should enter the national park through the straits of Opat, between Kornat and Smokvica, Park rangers on speedboats will approach to sell entrance tickets, currently 80kn/day. Overnight mooring is possible in several bays, usually at floating moorings signposted by red buoys. These include Lavsa, Levrnaka and Ravni Žakan. There is also a summer-only marina on the island of Piškera.

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National Park Krka
Šibenik-Knin County Tourist Board

Krka

Croatia’s second-most popular national park after Plitvice, to which it is usually compared, Krka is a water wonderland of cascades and waterfalls.

The money shot is Skradinski buk, a spectacular waterfall that feeds into a picture-postcard lagoon where swimming, strictly forbidden at Plitvice, is allowed. The authorities are fully aware of the effects of tourism, however, and in 2017 began to limit visitor numbers at this particular spot.

But Skradinski buk, and the 17 stepped cascades that precede it, are not the only attractions of this national park. Following its namesake river for much of its 75-kilometre journey, Krka is best admired on the boat tour that takes another spectacular waterfall in Roški slap, the man-made islet of Visovac and its Franciscan monastery, as well as the fortresses of Trošenj and Nečven.

It’s not all tranquil gawping. The national park has created a series of educational walks, with English explanations, to point out the unspoiled wonders of the wildlife here. More than 200 species of bird call Krka their home, including griffon vultures, golden eagles, ospreys and peregrine falcons. European otters, long-fingered bats and loggerhead sea turtles have also been seen.

Another guided walk focuses on Krka’s history, settled by early man and Romans, who set up a camp here and home for retired legionnaires as a reward for their sacrifice.

A longer hiking trail, starting at Roški slap and continuing for six hours along the Oziđana Cave path takes in the Krka canyon, Kamičak fortress, Visovac and the ancient forests of Stinice.

You can also visit an ethno complex of mills, fed by the rushing waters, and working traditional weaving looms.

There is no accommodation in Krka National Park itself but several options near the visitor centre and main entrance at Skradin. These include the three-star Skradinski buk with two-dozen double and triple rooms, plus rowing tours, and more individual waterfront Villa Barbara (www.vilabarbara.com), with in-house Restoran Marina.

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National Park Mljet
National Park Mljet

Mljet

As is the way with remote, idyllic islands, Mljet is surrounded by myth and legend. Was Paul the Apostle shipwrecked here? Possibly, but it could also have been Malta. Did the goddess Calypsos keep Odysseus captive here for seven years? Well, there’s certainly a cave named after the Homeric hero. Did Benedictine monks settle here in the 1100s? Yes, and you can even paddle across to their island monastery, set within one of two inland lakes.

Mljet, its name a corruption of the Ancient Greek word for honey, lies deep in south Dalmatia, close to Dubrovnik, where water currents and lack of modern industry mean that the Adriatic here is a particularly perfect blue. In fact, the most industrious it gets on Mljet is the scurrying of the occasional mongoose, descendant of a colony introduced here a century ago.

More than 70 percent of this long, thin, one-road paradise is covered in pine forest. The western third of it is all national park. From the main entrance and ticket office atGoveđari, most head first for the nearby twin saltwater lakes of Veliko Jezero and Malo Jezero, connected by a channel of water. The larger, Veliko Jezero, is linked to the sea by the Soline Canal and, like the Adriatic, it has tidal flows. You should make sure you know which direction the current is flowing and don’t get swept away. Malo Jezero is more suited to children, though it has no shoreline as such. Just take a deep breath and plunge in – the water is quite warm.

In the centre of Veliko Jezero, the tiny islet of St Mary contains a church of the same name and the monastery the Benedictines founded, long abandoned and more recently converted into a restaurant. To visit, you can either hop over by the regular boat or rent a canoe and get there by your own steam. Either way, you set off from the little bridge.

For more strenuous activities, leading from Veliko Jezero, a hiking path heads to the 253-metre-high (830-foot) high point of Montokuc, and its views across to Pelješac and Korčula. You can buy a hiking and cycling map of Mljet at kiosks in Polače and Pomena, near Goveđari.

Ask about water sports such at the main hotel on the island, the Odisej Mljet in Pomena, on the far western tip.

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National Park Northern Velebit
National Park Northern Velebit

Northern Velebit

Croatia has eight national parks and 11 nature parks. The Velebit mountain range, part of the Dinaric Alps running parallel to the coast from the south-eastern corner of Kvarner, is a nature park which contains two national parks: Northern Velebit and Paklenica.

Northern Velebit earned its status partly thanks to the botanical reserve here, established in 1967. Near Zavižan, a short hike from the mountain hut, nearly 1,500 metres above sea level, the Velebit Botanical Garden contains some 300 plant types. These Alpine varieties include Velebit degenia and Croatian sibirea only found in these parts.

The garden, best visited in June and July, is also a convenient setting-off point for one of several hiking trails that lead up to the three main peaks, all above 1,600 metres. Alternatively, you can start at the North Velebit Information Centre at Krasno, where a multimedia exhibition centre gives you a taste of what’s in store. Before attempting any of the mountain hikes, make sure you read the safety instructions concerning water, food and conduct. The national park usually operates from the beginning of May until the end of November, but always check the weather conditions before you leave.

Having already reached Krasno, a mountain village halfway between Starigrad on the coast and Otočac by the E71 highway, you have become acclimatised to the terrain – but perhaps not yet jaded as you look out from this plateau vantage point over the stunning landscape.

These three peaks, Velika Kosa, Balinovac and Veliki Zavižan, offer varying types of hikes and degrees of difficulty. The most well known is the Premužić Trail, created by the forester of the same name in 1933 and taking the best part of a day. Again, always check local advice and weather conditions before you start.

Veliki Zavižan is topped by Croatia’s highest meteorological station and has a better equipped mountain lodge than most – many huts are pretty basic, more of a shelter against the sudden storms.

Back in Krasno, there is standard but comfortable accommodation at the Konoba Jure, as well as home-cooked food and a sun-catching terrace.

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National park Paklenica
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Paklenica

Over towards the coast, near Starigrad and within easy reach of Zadar, Paklenica is the other national park within the Velebit range and more popular thanks to its more varied and less challenging hikes and climbs.

It consists of two canyons, Velika and Mala Paklenica, 14km and 12km respectively, surrounded by dramatic rock formations and fringed by pine forest. The diverse range of plants, some 1,000 in all, and expanses of beech, oak and fern helped gain this area of southern Velebit its national park status.

Here the sea always feels close by, allowing daytrippers a morning’s yomp followed by an afternoon dip. Paklenica is perfect for those who don’t want to exert themselves or stray too far from the sun-lounger.

As opposed to Northern Velebit and its hardy mountaineers, Paklenica appeals to family groups – there are also educational trails on which your guide points out the various types of wildlife around this karst river canyon. You may well see a woodpecker or a roe deer, but probably not a rarer golden eagle, brown bear or peregrine falcon.

All in all, there are some 200km of signposted paths. Easy, hour-long strolls take you from the sea’s edge to a convenient mountain hut. Planinarski Dom contains some 50 beds, with a kitchen, and is favoured by school and tour groups.

Paklenica is also popular with spelunkers, Manica peć being the most accessible cave. Guided tours take place from April to October, daily in high season, and last 30 minutes. Visitors are shown particular rock formations christened with unusual names – ‘The Witch’, ‘The Organ’ – and most express surprise at the sheer number of living beings in his seemingly uninhabitable environment, from bats to pseudoscorpions. Without pigmentation or visual organs, some tiny creatures survive by smell, touch and taste.

Lodging in Starigrad allows you the benefit of having both sea and national park on your doorstep. Rajna offers stays at a family-run hotel, in self-catering stone houses or in private accommodation, along with biking and hiking tours, and kayaking.

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National park Plitvice
National park Plitvice

Plitvice lakes

Plitvice is Croatia’s most popular national park, attracting more than one million visitors a year. Its cascades, waterfalls and lakes, 16 in all, changing colour from turquoise to azure to grey according to the minerals in the water and the play of light, give Plitvice the wow power to bring the bulk of this tourist traffic.

This notwithstanding, these dramatic miracles of

travertine, natural dams of moss and algae, barely cover one per cent of Plitvice as a whole. The rest of it, Croatia’s largest national park, is forest and grassland, criss-crossed by seven recommended walking tours to see the lakes, and four hiking trails.

Plitvice is also Croatia’s oldest national park. Such was its popularity among well-to-do Habsburg travellers that a hotel was set up here as early as 1890. Designated a national park in 1949, later declared a UNESCO World Heritage site, Plitvice is handily located halfway between Zagreb and Zadar, and offered as an easy day trip from either.

Each tour of the lakes takes anything from two hours to eight, and can also feature sections covered by panoramic tourist train or electric boat. Everything here is done to protect the park’s natural beauty and there are strict rules on litter and straying off marked trails.

The most popular hiking route, Medveđak, takes in the three peaks of Oštri Medveđak, Tupi Medveđak and Turčić, each between 800 and 900 metres in height. These slopes, and surrounding forests of old beech, are home to wolves, lynx and the brown bears that lend the trail its name. Regular information boards offer tips on wildlife and visitors can also hire a ranger to guide them.

Cycling is only permitted around the edges of the park, along designated roads. In winter, skiing is a major draw, the resort near Mukinje facilitated with a ski lift and even offering a floodlit variety of the sport until 9pm on certain weekends in season.

Several hotels operate in and around the park, including the Plitvice right in the centre. This classic example of 1950s’ design houses 50 rooms, a bar and restaurant, and can be booked through the national park website.

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National park Risnjak
National park Risnjak

Risnjak

The most northerly and arguably least known of Croatia’s national parks, Risnjak is frequented by climbers, hikers botanists and spelunkers. Lying just off the main road between Zagreb and Rijeka, it’s also a popular weekend destination for daytrippers.

Here you’re in the heart of unspoiled Gorski kotar, an unspoiled region of wooded slopes buffering up to the border with Slovenia, somewhat ambitiously referred to as the Croatian Switzerland.

Nevertheless, it is undeniably beautiful and, as its name suggests, a haven for rare wildlife. There’s lynx (ris in Croatian), wild boar, eagles, chamois, brown bears and even wild cats.

Most visitors come here to hike or climb. From the picturesque village of Crni Lug, where you find the main office and entrance to the park, a signposted educational trail runs through the forest for 4.5km. Regular instruction boards detail the fauna and flora to look out for – higher up you find Alpine snowbells, edelweiss and Alpine yellow violets. From Crni Lug, those with stronger calves and proper hiking boots can take a more challenging route up to Veliki Risnjak, the highest point in Risnjak National Park. Most reach the top in around three hours, perhaps resting at some point at Šloserov dom, named after the 19th-century botanist and explorer who first detailed much of the nature and landscape here.

Back down below, from the nearby village of Razloge, many also set out to explore the source of the river Kupa that is one of the largest and deepest springs in Croatia. Other natural attractions include Vražji prolaz, a canyon 800 metres long wedged between steep-sided rocks, lined with bridges and stairs for easy exploration. Close by, the dramatic waters of Zeleni vir once provided Gorski kotar with its power supply.

Accommodation in Crni Lug mainly consists of private lodging, complemented by the somewhat upscale chalets of Runolist www.runolist-crnilug.com, sauna, outdoor jacuzzi and all. A better option might be to stay in Delnice, where the Hotel Risnjak is a comfortable three-star choice with its own restaurant. Delnice, right by the highway, is around 10km from the park, along road 32.

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